(CN) — Rejecting the notion that killing elephants will save them, a federal judge has ruled against the National Rifle Association in its challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ban on importing elephant trophies.
No longer finding "that the killing of the animal whose trophy is intended for import would enhance the survival of the species," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspended the importation of elephant trophies sport-hunted in Zimbabwe in 2014.
That led Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association to sue in D.C. federal court, where their claims regarding elephants from Tanzania were dismissed in 2014.
After the agency renewed the suspension the next year, the hunters filed a second suit.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth later refused to let the hunters rely on emails they claim show regulatory protocol errors behind the import ban.
In the latest ruling in the consolidated case, Lamberth partially denied the hunters' summary judgment request Friday, finding the service did not require that sport-hunting "ensures" rather than simply enhances the survival of the species.
"Plaintiffs fail to recognize the difference in the quality and amount of information the agency had in 1997 compared to the information it had in 2014 and 2015," Lamberth wrote.
He later added: "Plaintiffs would have the agency focus only on whether sport-hunting generates revenue for species conservation and whether the presence of hunters deters poaching. But these factors address only the first part of the inquiry, and taken as true, they would always result in a positive enhancement finding."
The agency, however, "examines not only whether these factors exist but their effect on the species as a whole: whether fees generated by U.S. hunters are in fact being used to promote conservation and how they are being used under the government's management plan and sport-hunting program, whether their use is improving the species' prospects for survival into the future, and how the species would fare if U.S. hunters could not import trophies," Lamberth said.
Fish and Wildlife must find a causal link between the killing and the survival of the entire species, not just one or some elephants, according to the ruling.
"Thus, generating hunting fees and deterring poaching in specific instances do not show enhancement, without a showing that a government is properly using funds and protecting the species more broadly," Lamberth wrote. "Accordingly, the court holds that the agency did not apply an improper standard in issuing the three challenged findings."
But the judge awarded the plaintiffs summary judgment on the claim that the agency failed to publish notice of the changed enhancement finding in the Federal Register until May 2014, about a month after the suspension was put into place.
Colorado-based defendant-intervenor Friends of Animals' legal director Michael Harris said, "This is an important victory for African elephants."
The species "has taken a huge loss this past year, largely due to poor conservation management practices. Zimbabwe is one of the worst wildlife managers on earth," Harris said.
"It is about time the United States took action to protect these elephants from Americans seeking to take advantage of Zimbabwe's poor conservation practices in order to take a blood trophy."
Friends of Animals will defend the ban in the court of appeals if need be, Harris said.
"We hope to push the federal government to expand the ban to other African countries," he added.
Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said the government is reviewing the decision, but declined to comment further.
Safari said on its website that the ruling "has significance for all hunters."
"Lamberth made clear that the FWS does not have carte blanche to take hunting and importation opportunities away from U.S. hunters," the group said. "If the FWS makes a binding commitment to the hunting community, it had better meet that commitment."
Safari said it and the NRA have about two months to review the decision and determine whether to appeal.
The NRA did not return a request for comment before publication Tuesday.
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